Can the Lakers or Clippers win a title this year?

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina wonders how far the Lakers and Clippers can go this year after opening the playoffs with wins.

The two LA franchises entered the playoffs fielding questions about their durability and chemistry. The Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers have since given promising answers to both questions.

So what if Anthony Davis suffered a stinger in his right shoulder to open the postseason? While Davis stayed on the court and dominated, LeBron James and his supporting cast offered plenty to secure the Lakers a 128-112 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

So what if Paul George remains sidelined with a sprained right knee without a definitive timeline to return?  While George sat on the bench, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook and numerous role players all made winning plays to ensure the Clippers a 115-110 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of their first-round post-season matchup.

Pat Riley, the former Showtime Lakers coach and current Miami Heat executive, often argued the NBA playoffs never truly start until an opponent wins a road game. It took both the Lakers and Clippers just one game to accomplish that feat. Do we need more than one game to assess what that means about each team’s playoff trajectory?

Big disclaimer. It takes only one contest to steal a road game. It takes at least four games to win a playoff series. Too early to say whether the No. 7 Lakers will unseat the second-seeded Grizzlies. Too premature to conclude the No. 5 Clippers will send the fourth-seeded Suns home.

Grizzlies guard Ja Morant has time to heal his injured right hand before Game 2. The Grizzlies have the depth and confidence both to split their homecourt and reclaim a road win against the Lakers. The Suns only need Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul or Deandre Ayton to have a breakout game to change the series complexion.

The Lakers never truly know how well a 38-year-old star in his 20th NBA season (James) and their historically fragile co-star (Davis) can stay durable through the playoff grind. The Clippers also face uncertainty on how long George will stay sidelined after missing both Game 1 and the final nine regular-season games.

Those disclaimers aside, the Lakers and Clippers have shown enough on paper that they can both accomplish a few ambitious tasks. Both teams can win their first-round matchup. Both teams could meet in the Western Conference Finals for a long-awaited playoff battle in LA. Both teams could even contend for an NBA championship.

James has shown both dominance and fatigue. But with the playoffs allowing more time in between games, expect James to become more refreshed even as the post-season grind continues. Never rule out Davis experiencing a major injury. But for any ailment that simply involves pain tolerance? Davis should have enough time to heal. He also showed in Game 1 he has the right mindset to play through the physicality. The Lakers may not have a definitive third option. Yet, they showed in Game 1 that any combination of D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves can make big-time plays. Dennis Schroder showed the same thing in the Lakers’ play-in tournament win over Minnesota.

Should George return, he will face inevitable rust with his timing and conditioning. After that subsides, though, he should be able to score in bunches and become a primary defender on the opposing team’s top player. Until that happens, though, Leonard has shown he appears ready for the heavy workload. The Clippers no longer need Leonard to follow the load management program now that they are playing significant games. In both Game 1 and the final week of the regular season, Leonard has become both an efficient scorer and wing defender. Westbrook still might take the unnecessary shots that once made the Lakers cringe. But he has still offered plenty of value with his scoring, rebounding and hustle. The Clippers are also loaded with other scorers and defenders along the wings (Eric Gordon, Norman Powell, Terance Mann, Nicolas Batum) and in the frontcourt (Ivica Zubac, Mason Plumlee).

None of these developments should surprise anyone. The Lakers and the Clippers fell toward the middle of the Western Conference standings because of circumstances that do not currently apply to either team.

While Davis struggled with staying healthy, the Lakers labored with Westbrook struggling to find his fit. James’ greatness aside, the Lakers lacked enough reinforcements both to free up space for Westbrook and to shield him from his weaknesses. Once the Lakers dealt Westbrook before the trade deadline, they became a dramatically better team because they also addressed various needs, including playmaking (Russell), shooting (Malik Beasley) and front-court depth (Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba).

The Clippers showed season-long inconsistency mostly because they never knew whether Leonard, George or any other role player would be available because of injuries, both serious and minor. The Clippers also lacked consistent backcourt help with Reggie Jackson and John Wall. Once the Clippers signed Westbrook on the buyout market, they witnessed Westbrook display both his positive and negative habits. They became more equipped, however, to absorb both Westbrook’s strengths and warts because of their roster depth.

Too early to make plans to attend a Lakers-Clippers showdown in the Western Conference, let alone secure a spot for an NBA championship parade in LA. Yet, the Lakers and Clippers have found the right championship ingredients. Now, they just have to prepare that recipe without allowing the Suns and Grizzlies to have too many cooks in their own kitchen.

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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